The last seven years have brought enormous changes to Colombia. The government now controls over 90 percent of its territory, versus only about half in 2002. Drug gangs and leftist rebels (FARC and ELN) have suffered the loss of over half their combat strength, and the most of the territory they controlled. The drug gangs suffered nearly as much, and have moved a lot of their cocaine operations to neighboring countries. Anti-leftist militias, like the AUC, which grew out of rural resistance to leftist terrorism, have disbanded. Crime is way down. Murders have declined by 49 percent, kidnappings by 85 percent, victims of massacres (long a common event in Colombia) by 75 percent and internal refugees by 47 percent. It's been difficult to get good data on rape cases, because this crime is often not reported. At the same time, gangsters and rebels use rape as terror weapon to control civilians, or coerce police and government officials. Kidnapping and murder are also common terrorist weapons, and have long been used by both the government and rebel groups. The violence today is part of pattern that began in the late 1940s ("La Violencia"), and has left over half a million dead, and millions injured or displaced. Millions more simply fled the country, either into neighboring states, or distant destinations like the U.S. or Europe.
"La Violencia" (The Violence) was basically a bloody battle between leftists and conservatives. There was a lull in the late 1950s and early 60s, when moderate leftists and conservatives worked out a compromise. But the worldwide upsurge in leftist activism in the 1960s reignited La Violencia. The leftist rebels got another boost in the 1970s when cocaine became a big business, and the leftists used their muscle to protect the drug gangs from the government. Now, half a century after the peacemaking compromises that ended the first round of La Violencia, the conservative government is trying to cut a similar deal with the leftist rebels. But FARC, weakened as it is, does not want to negotiate. The smaller ELN is a little more willing, but both leftist groups are encouraged by leftist governments in Venezuela and Ecuador, to keep fighting. Both Venezuela and Ecuador are offering sanctuary for FARC, although they have to do it quietly, because FARC is officially recognized (by international agreements) as a terrorist and drug dealing organization. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but Ecuador and Venezuela are deep into fantasy if they believe the cocaine financed FARC is going to reverse its fortunes and take control of Colombia. The big lesson in all this is that terrorism doesn't work long term. The Colombian government made their big comeback by concentrating on protecting the population, which made it possible to revive the economy. FARC's guns and slogans can't compete with this.
Most of the military operations are along the borders (with Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.) While Panama is willing to work with the Colombians to suppress the violence, the drug gangs and their bribes are a major hindrance. The longer (and largely rural and mountainous) borders with Ecuador and Venezuela are even less intensely patrolled, on both sides, and are the scene of patrols clashing and the army seeking out drug gang and FARC camps (permanent or temporary.) Venezuela has been more accommodating with FARC, but this has led to a crime wave in their side of the border area, and Venezuelan and Colombian gangsters moved into a region that has become increasingly free of any law. While some Venezuelan army units have moved into the region, in response to local civilian complaints, the Venezuelan army has become a largely political, not military, force. Officers are promoted largely on the basis of their loyalty (to president Chavez, a former infantry officer), not their military skills. New weapons are purchased mainly for show, not to build a more effective armed forces. For example, the 36 new Su-30 jet fighters were given to the army, not the air force (loyalty issues again), and pilots are being selected, again, mainly for loyalty. Same deal in the air force, where a lot of professional minded officers still resist the political loyalty campaign.
May 17, 2009: Off the Pacific coast, a U.S. destroyer captured a semi-submersible cocaine boat. The Colombian Navy has captured six such boats (each of which carries up to 12 tons of cocaine) so far this year. The U.S. and Colombia now have an agreement which allows the U.S. Navy to cooperate in patrolling the Pacific coast for drug smugglers. The U.S. has more powerful search technology, and both countries pool intelligence to get a better idea of where the drug boats will be vulnerable to capture.